By Pentagon Producer Larry Shaughnessy reporting from Tokyo
Futenma Air Station on Okinawa is just one of dozens of American military installations in Japan. It is not the biggest and it is not home to the most American troops, but its status has become a bellwether issue between the two allies.
It almost certainly will come up when U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta meets with the Japan's prime minister, defense minister and foreign minister on Tuesday. Ahead of his arrival in Japan as part of his weeklong trip to Asia, the issue of one the Marine Corps base on Okinawa was at the forefront.
"Realigning the U.S. military footprint in Japan will make our alliance more effective while reducing the impact of our presence on local populations," Panetta wrote in an op-ed published Monday Morning in a Yomiuri newspaper, Japan's largest daily. "Moving forward with the relocation of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to Camp Schwab is a core part of this effort."
Futenma first became an American military base in the waning days of World War Two after the United States invaded Okinawa. At the time, the area on Okinawa's southwest coast was sparsely populated. But in recent years, the city of Ginowan has grown up around the base, leaving the runways and base facilities surrounded by densely packed homes and businesses.
In 1995, three U.S. Marines stationed on Okinawa assaulted an elementary school girl. According to a publication by the Okinawa Prefectural Government, the incident "triggered action by the people of Okinawa, demanding the reduction and realignments of U.S. bases." A rally a short time later drew a record crowd of 85,000 protesters.
The next year, the United States and Japan agreed to relocate Futenma and the 1st Marine Air Wing to a less populated area and return the Futenma property to Okinawa.
The two countries later agreed many of the Marines from Futenma would move to a Futenma Replacement Facility (FRF) on Camp Schwab in central Okinawa.
Now, 16 years after the Okinawa people began demanding that Futenma close down, the secretary of defense will become the latest U.S. official to talk with Japan's leaders about this thorn in the side of a decades-old alliance.
"I will make clear to them that we continue to support our commitment with Japan with regards to Futenma and with regards to Okinawa," Panetta told reporters before flying to Japan.
But he also pointed out that Japan is part of the reason for delays in closing the current Futenma base and opening the new FRF airbase at Camp Schwab.
"I think it's very important that Japan proceed with obviously moving forward with Futenma (replacement facility), getting the appropriate permits that are required in order for ... that development for the airbase to take place. And it's been going on a long period of time," Panetta said.
The slow action on FRF is symptomatic of a larger problem in Japan. The nation has had six prime ministers in five years, which is not conducive to decision making.
Panetta has a rich agenda of matters to discuss in Japan, including further cooperation in the area of ballistic missile defense and arms exports.
"We think that it's very important that the United States and Japan be able to work together to provide technology and assistance to others as we move forward" on ballistic missile defense, according to a senior defense official who talked with reporters on the flight to Tokyo.
And there is the issue of North Korea. The United States has been trying to talk the North Koreans into returning to the six-party talks to end its nuclear program. Japan is a key player in those talks.
Panetta may also discuss Japan's search for the FX, their next generation fighter jet. Japan is currently considering three possible platforms, versions of the U.S.-built F-35 and F/A 18 jets and a fighter from a European consortium.
"I think the secretary will be very, very clear that choosing one of the two U.S. platforms makes a lot of sense for the alliance and provides a lot of upsides in terms of interoperability," the official said.
But with all those issues on his plate, his first stop upon landing will be a town hall-style meeting with U.S. and Japanese troops at Yakota Air Base to thank them for their service and answer some of their questions.